Joe Tarsia, founder of Sigma Sound Studios and chief engineer for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff‘s Philadelphia International Records, died on Nov. 1 in Lancaster, Penn. The 88-year-old’s cause of death was not disclosed.
Working with songwriter/producers Gamble, Huff and Thom Bell, Tarsia was instrumental in creating PIR’s signature brand of sophisticated soul called the Sound of Philadelphia. He left his mark on a multitude of classic hits such as Jerry Butler‘Only the strong survive’ O’Jay’s‘ “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers,” Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes“If you don’t know me now,” Billy Paul‘Me and Mrs. Jones” and The spinners“I’ll be around.” Tarsia has also accumulated credits on recordings by Teddy Pendergrass, the Stylistics, Patti LaBelle, the Delfonics and Lou Rawls.
In addition to the stable of PIR acts, Sigma Sound in Philadelphia also attracted the likes of Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and the Jacksons. Tarsia also ran a Sigma Sound branch in New York from 1977-1988, where he booked sessions for Madonna, Whitney Houston and Elton John, among others.
Gamble paid tribute to his and Huff’s longtime creative companion and friend in a statement, saying in part, “As our principal studio recording engineer for PIR, Joe was a tremendous asset in helping us create what became the legendary Sound of Philadelphia. For all songs written and produced by me, Huff and our label and recorded by our artists, Joe was the recording architect behind the music we gave to the world. Joe’s passing is a great loss to me personally, professionally and to the legacy of recorded music.”
“Joe and his Sigma Sound Studios were second to none,” added Huff. “I am also very saddened by the loss of our dear friend and one of the greatest sound engineers of all time. Joe’s connection to me and Gamble was like Quincy Jones’s relationship to his personal engineer, Bruce Swedien. More importantly, it was an honor for me to share my music career with Joe and blessed to have him in our recording booth when I played on the sessions that helped us create the Sound of Philadelphia.”
A Philadelphia native born on Sept. 23, 1934, Tarsia worked at the electronics company Philco before joining Cameo-Parkway Records as the label’s engineer in the early ’60s, where she recorded artists such as Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell. It was during this period that he first met Bell, Gamble and Huff, and developed the latter pair’s 1967 hit with the Soul Survivors, “Expressway to Your Heart”. He later risked borrowing against his home to found Sigma Sound Studios in 1968 – so named after Tarsia, the word Sigma appeared on a placemat in a Greek restaurant.
“I literally hacked my house and [took] all the cash I had accumulated — everything I had — and got a bank to loan me forty thousand dollars and never looked back,” Tarsia recalled in the 2003 book Temples of Sound: Inside the great recording studios.
Celebrating the 50thTh the anniversary of Sigma Sound’s founding in 2018, Tarsia said Philadelphia Inquirer“If I made a contribution, it was that Philadelphia had a unique sound. I was able to attract the best technicians, the best engineers. And the story speaks for itself. Sigma – not me – has 200 gold and platinum records… There was the Motown sound. The Memphis sound. The Muscle Shoals sound. And there was the Sigma sound.”
Tarsia’s survivors include his wife Cecelia, daughter, Lori, and three grandchildren.